Big cities. Small towns. Rural townships. Suburban communities. Rich. Poor. Young. Old. White. Hispanic. African American. No matter where you live, how much money you have, how old you are, or your race…chances are good your life has been affected by opioid abuse. Maybe it’s a family member or a friend. Maybe it’s you. 

Opioid and heroin addiction is plaguing communities across our country and our Commonwealth, and right here in Fayette and Somerset counties. Last year, more than 4,600 Pennsylvanians lost their lives to opioid overdose. 

As anyone who has dealt with losing a loved one to drugs will tell you, it is a complex problem. Heroin addiction can start with legal, legitimately prescribed pain medications. Once addicted, the user may turn to heroin, which is cheaper and easier to obtain. It may start with a bad decision to “try it once,” and just that quickly, the fingers of addiction take hold and drug dealers are ready and waiting to exploit that. 

But we are fighting back. 

As your state representative, I can tell you the Legislature is working hard to enact new laws and policies to combat the problem from several angles, including efforts to reduce overprescribing of pain medications, prevent people from obtaining prescriptions illegally, impose harsher penalties on the men and women who sell these deadly drugs to our loved ones, and make funding available for opioid education and treatment programs. 

Specifically, under the leadership of the House Republican Caucus, new laws were adopted last year to prohibit health care practitioners from prescribing more than seven days of an opioid drug product without a refill in an emergency department or urgent care center; require medical professionals to receive continuing education in pain management and identification of addiction; and limit opioid prescriptions given to minors to a seven-day period. Prescribers are also required to consult the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Database (PDMP) each time a patient is dispensed an opioid or controlled substance and to update the PDMP within 24 hours when issuing an opioid prescription. 

So far this year, we passed a law requiring the addition of opioid abuse prevention curriculum in our schools, and the House has passed measures to better regulate pain management clinics and require certification of drug and alcohol recovery houses that receive public funding. Also under discussion are bills to restore mandatory minimum sentences for trafficking drugs to minors and increasing the length of mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders. 

The General Assembly is also working to make treatment more affordable and accessible by providing additional funding to the Department of Human Services specifically aimed at addressing opioid addiction. The state departments of Health and Human Services, along with local law enforcement, have made it a priority to place prescription drug take-back boxes throughout the Commonwealth to keep drugs from falling into the wrong hands. 

Our local police and first responders are doing everything they can to fight back as well. And in the face of tragedy, many families who have lost loved ones are speaking out in an effort to save others from experiencing the same fate. 

Sadly, no single solution will make this problem go away. Putting drug dealers behind bars helps, but as long as there is a market for the product, they’ll keep coming back. Reviving overdosing addicts with naloxone saves their life this time, but most will go back to using rather than finding help. Sending someone struggling with addiction to rehab may help them get clean in the short term, but addiction is a life-long battle and relapse is common. 

As discouraging as that is, we have no choice but to keep fighting. The Legislature must ensure laws and policies are in place to help our law enforcement officers and first responders save lives and put criminals behind bars. Our schools, community centers and families must keep their eyes peeled for signs that a young person or other loved one is struggling. Neighbors need to look out for neighbors, friends for friends. 

This is not some other person’s problem. It’s our communities’ problem, our Commonwealth’s problem and our country’s problem. Let’s work together to put a stop to it.